Cardamom is one of the world’s ancient spices. It is native to the East, originating in the forests of the Western Ghats in South India, where it grows wild. Today, it also grows in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Indo China and Tanzania. The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom seeds as a tooth cleaner; the Greeks and the Romans used it as a perfume.
Cardamom is an expensive spice, second only to saffron. It is often adulterated and there are many inferior substitutes from cardamom-related plants, such as Siam cardamom, Nepal cardamom, winged Java cardamom, and bastard cardamom. However, it is only Elettaria cardamomum which is the true cardamom. The two popular known varieties of Indian cardamom are: Malabar cardamom and Mysore cardamom. The Mysore variety contains higher levels of cineol and limonene and hence, is more aromatic.
Cardamom comes from the seeds of a ginger-like plant. The small, brown-black sticky seeds are contained in a pod in three double rows with about six seeds in each row. The pods are between 5-20 mm long, the larger variety known as ‘black’, being brown, and the smaller one being green. White-bleached pods are also available. Cardamom is the dried, un-ripened fruit of the perennial Elettaria cardamomum. Enclosed in the fruit pods are tiny, brown, aromatic seeds which are slightly pungent to taste.
A stimulant and carminative, cardamom is not used in Western medicine for it own properties, but forms a flavouring and basis for medicinal preparations for indigestion and flatulence using other substances, entering into a synergetic relationship with them. The Arabs attributed aphrodisiac qualities to it and the ancient Indians regarded it as a cure for obesity. It features in curries, is essential in pilaus (rice dishes) and gives character to pulses. Cardamom is often included in Indian sweet dishes and drinks.
Star anise, star aniseed or Chinese star anise is obtained from the star-shaped pericarp of Illicium verum, a small native evergreen tree of southwest China. The star shaped fruits are harvested just before ripening. The essential oil resides in the pericarp, not in the seed.
Star anise teas are believed to treat colic in babies. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is a digestive, stimulant and a remedy for intestinal cramps. Poultices containing the spice and hot spice decoctions are used as a cure for arthritis. Star anise is the industrial source of shikimic acid, a primary ingredient used to create the anti-flu drug Tamiflu. Anise enjoys considerable reputation as a medicine in coughs and pectoral affections.
The spice is widely used in Chinese, Indian (where it is a major component of garam masala) and in Indonesian cuisines. It is largely employed in France, Spain Italy and South America in the preparation of cordial liqueurs. The liqueur Anisette added to cold water on a hot summer day makes a most refreshing drink. Star anise is an ingredient of the traditional five-spice powder of Chinese cooking. It is also one of the ingredients used to make the broth for the Vietnamese noodle soup.
The nutmeg (Myristica) is a genus of evergreen tree indigenous to tropical Southeast Asia and Australasia. Two spices are derived from the fruit, nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed of the tree, roughly egg-shaped. The most important species commercially is the common or fragrant nutmeg, Myristica fragrans. The fruit is fleshy, about 2-4 inches in length. On ripening, it splits into half, exposing a bright-red, netlike aril wrapped around a dark, reddish-brown, shell within which lies a single seed. The net-like aril is mace, which on drying turns from red to yellowish or orange brown. The brown seed, after the shell is discarded, is nutmeg.
The oil is used for rheumatic pain and can be applied as an emergency treatment to dull toothache. In France, it is given in drop doses in honey for digestive upsets. It is also used for bad breath.
In Indian cuisine, nutmeg is used almost exclusively in sweets. It is known as jaiphal in most parts of India. It is also used in small quantities in garam masala. In European cuisine, nutmeg and mace are used in potato dishes and in processed meat products. It is also used in soups, sauces and baked goods. It is used as a natural food flavouring in baked goods, syrups (e.g. Coca Cola), beverages and sweets.